Central America, Destinations, Guatemala, Spirit

Death, life and drugs in Xela’s cemetery

August 3, 2011

Xela cemetery detail, Guatemala

The other students at my Spanish school and I were warned. You don’t go into the cemetery at night. And if you’re a woman, best not to go there at all, unless in a group.

So naturally, I put it on my list of places I wanted to see before I left Xela. 

I asked my Spanish teacher to take me and she managed to convince another teacher and student to come with us – safety in numbers.

Although it looks like something out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s not the undead that roam the streets of Xela’s cemetery.

Only two police officers patrol the entire city within a city, so it’s the shady, the knife-wielding and the drug-addled that hang out in empty or unguarded tombs.

According to my teacher.

And we did come across someone a little…I’d like to say out of his tree but considering he called out to us from high up in a tree, with a definite emphasis on the high, it’s not exactly the right way to describe him.

A town within a town at Xela's cemetery

The cemetery is beautifully decrepit, and perfectly illustrates the relationship that the strongly religious Guatemaltecos have with death. In Guatemala, life after death is just as important as…well, life. 

At their cheapest, plots in Xela’s cemetery cost 80 quetzales (about $10) per year.

The poorer graves at Xela's cemetery, Guatemala

Literally holes in the walls, bodies are only allowed to rest there for as long as the family can afford the upkeep – when the money stops coming, the bodies are exhumed and tossed into mass graves at the back of the cemetery. 

A row of graves in Xela's cemetery

I have visited places like India and seen bodies burning on funeral pyres, the remains tossed into a holy river, or places like Tibet where sky burials are the norm. The ground is too hard to be broken and wood for a pyre is scarce so bodies are taken out onto the plateau and broken into small pieces for vultures to eat.

Guatemala’s rituals couldn’t be more different. Strongly Catholic, burning bodies just isn’t done here.

Statues in Xela's cemetery

Tomb detail, Xela's cemetery

I asked my teacher if she thought whether one day Xela’s cemetery would be closed, and eventually buildings built on top.

‘No, no!’ she insited, shaking her head, seemingly shocked that I would even suggest it. 

‘En Guatemala, el entierro (burial) es muy importante. Muy importante.’

 View more images from Xela’s cemetery

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  • Reply Audrey August 3, 2011 at 3:12 am

    Dan and I managed to convince our teachers to take us to the cemetery in Xela and it was one of our favorite activities. Like you, we had been warned about safety and our teachers made sure we didn’t wander off to far away. The cemetery is beautiful and so peaceful.

    We did see a kid have to be carried away by an ambulance when we were there – not sure if it was alcohol or drugs (or both). Rather sad.

    • Reply MeganRTW August 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm

      My teacher and the other teacher that came with us were very jumpy – when we came across the man in the tree they quickly made us backtrack to an area where there were a few more people.

      I guess it was lucky that an ambulance came and he wasn’t just left there – the cemetery is so big is must be easy for someone to pass out and not be found for a while.

      Despite all that, it definitely is a very beautiful place.

  • Reply Claire August 3, 2011 at 5:56 am

    You were brave to go! I watched a segment from Human Planet on sky burials…that stuff is wild. Great pics and another great adventure!

    • Reply MeganRTW August 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm

      Hey Claire! As far as I know it’s very rare for a foreigner or film crew to be allowed to watch a sky burial. I saw some sky burial sites in Tibet and it’s such a different (and gory!) way of dealing with death. Apparently it can also be very difficult to find someone who is both willing and spiritually qualified enough to perform one.

  • Reply Kris Koeller August 3, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Terrific photos, looks like a very photogenic spot.

    • Reply MeganRTW August 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm

      I could have spent hours taking pictures there Kris – but a few times my teacher actually told me to put my camera away – glad I wasn’t there alone.

  • Reply Tijmen August 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    That cemetery looks a lot more interesting then the ones in Holland, they look kind of boring compared to this. I would never just visit one back home and walk around and take photos, but the Xela cemetery would definitely be one I would visit. Not at night though, not sure why people would do that in the first place 🙂

    • Reply MeganRTW August 7, 2011 at 9:46 am

      Tijmen I was going to say I wouldn’t visit a cemetery at home either but then realised there’s actually a quite atmospheric one in Newtown, a suburb in Sydney’s inner west/inner city. It’s quite a popular location for budding photographers to take brooding shots.

  • Reply LV October 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I was born in Xela, moved to the USA in 1979 when I was a child my brother , some friends and I played in this place most of the time we got kicked out by the ground keeper but we still managed to have fun.

    • Reply MeganRTW October 8, 2011 at 7:18 am

      It’s a beautiful place, LV! Was it scary playing there as a child? I think my friends and I would have scared ourselves with ghost stories.

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